Open Your Own Damn Milk: Tales from the Neoliberal Wasteland

I’d like to share a story about poverty, neoliberalism and child abuse. It’s a rather specific case study, but it serves as an instructive tale about the condition of the masses of disenfranchised in urban and rural centers across the country.

A friend of mine works at a charter school in New Orleans, an experience that has been horrific on many levels. Her school is dirt poor, “under performing” and 99% black. It possesses all of the defects and characteristics of the post-Katrina neoliberalization of that proud city.

I’m often haunted by one particular story she shared with me about her pre-kindergarten kids — we’re talking 4–5 year olds, here. One day in the cafeteria at lunch, she watched a kid struggle to open his milk carton. [As an aside — I, too, remember how hard it could be to open them. Sometimes, you’d have to get a knife to open it once the carton became too flimsy to pry open the normal way. These kids don’t have access to knives, so that’s not an option. Plus, they’re 5 years old…] In any case, my friend bent down to help this kid with his battered milk carton. Another teacher — a New Orleans native — shouted at her across the cafeteria, “Don’t you help them! They can do it themselves. Don’t let them fool you like that. They need to learn.”

Long story short, my friend was not allowed to help the 5-year olds with their milk cartons anymore, and this kid never did open his milk. It ended up in the trash.

This story is emblematic of the way that poor, racialized kids are treated in this school and every other one like it in New Orleans. It’s discursively projected as “resiliency” and “tough love” by New Orleans natives and charter school advocates, alike. But just below the ideology lies something far more sinister.

The message is loud and clear: You are all alone in this world. Authority figures are here to discipline and punish you, not to provide any assistance or support. You sink or swim, and you’ll undoubtedly sink, so get used to it. There is a zero tolerance policy for failure, pay no mind to the fact that the bar for success is set at a totally unrealistic level. You cannot, moreover, should not expect any assistance from those in positions of authority. You are alone in this world.

I think about this pre-K kid, and I compare him to little Rutherford who attends pre-K at a $40k/year private school. Rutherford is supported, loved, and encouraged to make mistakes under controlled conditions. Who succeeds in the end: little Rutherford, or my friend’s pre-K kid? Well, we know the answer to that question. The outcome was predetermined from the start; and it has far more to do with resources and opportunities than psychology, alone. But the class psychology lesson here is as palpable as it is devastating:

Welcome to the neoliberal wasteland: you are on your own (unless you’re born rich).